Can transportation planners in the metro area even consider the possibility of a commuter rail line from Northfield to Minneapolis? It's iffy for now.
"High emotions are riding on it right now," a top official of the Metropolitan Council told members of the Scott County board in a briefing last week. Added Arlene McCarthy, director of Metropolitan Transportation Services: "I don't know that the council will push real hard on that."
A "flurry of press" on the issue, alerting longstanding opponents of the project to the effort underway, has complicated matters, she said -- without dooming it in the long run.
The line, from Northfield to downtown Minneapolis, was once considered a top contender for funding, running as it does through some of the fastest-growing suburban areas in the state. But residents of Lakeville, Bloomington and Edina, worried about the safety of trains barreling along back yards and parks, managed to convince legislators several years ago to expressly prohibit any official consideration of it.
Rail advocates always considered the safety issue overblown. "Safety is always part of the review of any proposal for commuter rail," said Virginia Miller, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based American Public Transportation Association, a leading industry group.
And a growing list of elected officials across the metro area is agreeing with advocates from Savage and Scott County that it doesn't make much sense to refrain from even studying the idea.
After reciting a long list of official bodies supporting a return to Dan Patch planning, Scott County commissioner Jon Ulrich added:
"All these groups are not saying 'implement it tomorrow.' But they are saying, 'Hey, it doesn't seem right that we can't even study it. It seems almost un-American that we can't even discuss it.'"
Rep. Mike Beard, the Shakopee Republican who had a bill drafted this year that would order a reversal of what's been called the "gag order," said it's hard to tell at this point what its prospects are.
"I have been told," he said, "that my colleagues north of the river will do anything they could to kill it."
Conversely, he said, "I don't see how the transit wonks who run this place could do that" -- meaning leaders of a transit-friendly DFL majority.
One twist that could play out in differing ways:
House Republicans Neil Peterson of Bloomington and Ron Erhardt of Edina were two of the handful of GOP lawmakers who voted with DFLers to reverse Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto of the gas tax. That enraged many fellow Republicans, and it is through Bloomington and Edina that the Dan Patch would run.
In their gratitude, DFL leaders may not believe that this is the time to put a thumb in their eye by permitting a Dan Patch bill. But as Beard pointed out, "on our side of the aisle it might help" -- that is, Republicans normally willing to listen to the two of them might find it satisfying to try to hurt them.
In launching the initial push for the bill last fall, Thomas Brennan, then the mayor of Savage, said it was "difficult for us to understand how one of the fastest-growing counties in the country does not have a single light-rail or commuter-rail route identified in [either the state's] or the Metropolitan Council's long-range planning process."
Since then, there have been signs that the gas tax proceeds could help accelerate the creation of a Southwest Corridor light rail line, from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. That line could in turn be linked by express bus to Scott County, much as the Cedar Avenue bus rapid transit line from Dakota County would be linked to the Hiawatha light-rail line.
This week is a key one for bills at the Legislature, Beard said, but the fate of the Dan Patch idea may not be known till Easter recess.
If his bill is allowed to remain a separate bill, he said, "it could well pass and the governor would sign it. If it gets tossed into a big 'transportation policy' bill along with the kitchen sink, it could be in trouble."
David Peterson • 952-882-9023